The stories are everywhere. In acres upon acres of green fields, in tiny plots by the side of the river, in overgrown cemeteries nearly forgotten at the edge of a field.
Stories linger from these places of final rest. A quiet walk on a rainy day through the cemeteries of Boone and Boone County can bring to life the stories of the Des Moines River Valley’s pioneer heritage.
Here in these places are stories of incredible heroism that beg to be remembered. And sadly, there is the story of a trail of blood and tears that spread across the Iowa prairie more than a century ago.
Strikingly, two of the most powerful stories that can be found in the quiet resting places around Boone involve children. One of them lost his life on a cold December night along the Des Moines River. Another risked her life in order to save so many other lives and lived to have the story told and retold for generations.
“I think the story of Kate Shelley just resonates with people,” says Scott Smith, past president of the Boone County Historical Society.
The teenage girl who crawled across the Des Moines River High Bridge on a stormy night to warn the oncoming passenger train of the washed-out bridge ahead, today rests at Sacred Heart Catholic Cemetery in Boone. The stone that marks her grave — like Kate Shelley herself — is humble and does not speak of the heroism that saved so many lives on the night of July 6, 1881.
Nearby, a larger stone marks the graves of Kate Shelley’s parents, Michael and Margaret. Smaller stones set into the ground mark the graves of Kate and her brother, James, who was just 11 years old when he drown in the Des Moines River in July 1879.
Noting that the people on the train would have been sent crashing into the raging waters of Honey Creek at the site of the washed-out bridge, Smith says he has to wonder how the tragedy of her brother’s death factored in to Kate Shelley’s thinking that history-making night.
“It was only a couple years before that he had drown, so I have to wonder how that factored in to her psyche,” he says.
While the family grave markers are simple and make no mention of the heroic act, others have made sure that her deed is not forgotten. At the other end of the grave is a larger monument, this one placed by the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen. The marker was placed at the grave to mark the 75th anniversary of Kate Shelley’s crossing of the high bridge.
“Here is a deed bound for legend,” the tablet begins as it retells the story. Emblazoned with a lantern, just as Kate Shelley found her way across the bridge by lantern-light, the Conductors and Brakemen pledged to “perpetuate the example of Kate Shelley and her courage.”
For Kate Shelley, who lived until age 47, this quiet resting place at Sacred Heart Cemetery is halfway across the country, and all the way across the ocean from where she was born in Loughaun, Ireland. But it’s a short trip as the crow flies from the place that became her home here in the heart of the Des Moines River Valley,
“From a distance standpoint, she literally lived just down the road,” Smith notes.
Farther to the north, a small plot just up from the Des Moines River is the final resting place of a young boy whose death, along with the death of his mother, led to the murder of some 35 pioneer settlers at the Spirit Lake Massacre.
Henry Lott, as some historians have noted, was a horse thief who had his share of trouble with certain bands of Indians when he settled near the confluence of the Boone and Des Moines rivers.
But Lott’s wife and their son, Milton, were but innocent bystanders who lost their lives as the result of an Indian raid at Lott’s cabin in December 1846.
As the attack ensued, 12-year-old Milton Lott fled down the ice-covered Des Moines River, to perhaps not only escape the fate of the tomahawk, but to try and secure help for his family from settlers who lived down river. Instead, Milton succumbed to the freezing cold and his body was found later that month.
“He was thinly-clad when he left home and without doubt suffered with cold from the start,” according to the account written in a 1914 Boone County History book. His body was found “about 40 rods below the mouth of a little creek” that flowed into the river.
Young Milton, it was said, “attempted to climb the bench that separates the lower and upper bottoms, but must have been numbed by cold that he fell back and didn’t raise again.”
The search party that found Milton Lott’s body was unable to bury him immediately, and instead placed the body in a hollow log to keep it safe from predators. The group returned later to lay the boy to rest, and little thought was paid to the grave for many years.
Finally, some 57 years later, Corydon Lucas, who wrote an account of the incident for Boone County History, went in search of survivors who had been present at the burial. Aided by John Pea, J.F. Eppert and T.P. Menton, Lucas located the grave in the fall of 1903. Two years later, in November 1905, the Madrid Historical Society worked to pay for a small monument at the site for the child.
Today, the monument — on the east side of Leaf Avenue, just north of E26 — is easy to find, passed by hundreds every day, yet few stop to remember. The burial site above the Des Moines River is quiet and serene— a place where a child who died in terror can rest in peace. (For those interested in learning more about the Lott family, Mrs. Lott’s grave can be found a short distance up river at Vegors Cemetery north of Stratford.)
History-makers such as Kate Shelley and Milton Lott may be remembered in humbled stones, but many more of the men, women and even children of their day are memorialized in stones filled with intricate carvings and symbols rich in meaning.
Take a leisurely walk through the sprawling Linwood Park Cemetery in Boone and visitors will find stories waiting to be deciphered in this nearly forgotten language of graveyard symbolism.
The stone for Raymond Slater towers above the grass at Linwood and gives ample example of the symbols used by previous generations to honor their loved ones.
Slater’s stone features a column on one side — a symbol often used to represent mortality, while a broken column, which can also be found on some stones of the day, symbolized the break in earthly life to heavenly life.
In the case of Slater’s stone, the column is flanked by a fern often used to symbolize humility and sincerity, as well as lilies, which may have represented purity and chastity.
But Slater’s stone doesn’t stop with just a column. It also features a large anchor entwined in a cross. While the symbolism could be as simple as denoting a sailing history, the anchor is also known to symbolize hope and eternal life. Members of the Masonic Lodge also have used anchors as a symbol of “well grounded hope.”
Children’s graves, of course, are among the saddest and are often filled with meaning. One of the most common symbols used for the loss of a child is a tree trunk cut before its time. “Our Little Zoe” marks the tree trunk-style grave of Zoe Edna, who lived from Nov. 11, 1872, until Nov 3, 1875. From nearby stones, it appears that her last name was Guliher.
Angels and lambs are other symbols often associated with the graves of infants and children. Empty shoes, particularly with one turned on its side as if a child just kicked them off, is another, less-often used symbol placed on children’s graves.
For those blessed to have lived a longer life, a sheaf of wheat is sometimes used to represent the harvest of a life well-lived.
Keep walking and visitors will find stones with arches — representing the passage from earth to heaven — as well as harps, which are used to represent praise to God. Oftentimes, the harp may also have a broken string, representing the broken chain of life on earth.
Crowns and wreaths are other common symbols found in older sections of the cemetery. Here they are said to represent triumph over death.
Today’s stones often speak a plainer language, using words rather than symbols to remember a loved one. Stone benches are increasingly popular and give visitors a place to sit and reflect on the lives of the ones who have gone before.
“Cemeteries are neat places,” Smith says.
The stories within these quite places are as old as the ages, and as new as the life of each visitor who passes through, or comes to rest.